(WUSA9/WZZM)-- More than 5 million children in the U.S. are diagnosed with attention-deficit, hyperactivity disorder. But do all of them have ADHD, or could something they're eating be responsible for those symptoms? Some specialists and families think so, while others say diet-associated hyperactivity is rare.
Color additives have been used to enhance the appearance of food for nearly 150 years. The federal government began to oversee their use in the 1880s and in 1931 approved 15 dyes for food, medications, and cosmetics. Six of those colors are still being used today.
Lately the focus has been on Red Dye 40 and there have multiple studies examining a possible association to ADHD and behavior.
Laura Kitchen believes the additive certainly affects her six year old son, Thomas.
Kitchen says, "He was bouncing around non-stop just uncontrollably; wouldn't listen, wouldn't even focus on anything."
She was worried that her son may have ADHD and took him to neuropsychologist Michael Wolff, Ph who treats children with hyperactivity disorders. He says some children are allergic or intolerant of food additives, and recommended eliminating Red Dye 40 from Thomas' diet.
Dr. Wolff explains, "Some of our first responses here are to look at general health and to remove artificial food dyes."
Thomas's mom says she noticed a change right away once Red Dye 40 foods were eliminated. "When doing that, he's that sweet gentle kid all the time," she says.
But as soon as he consumes the additive, Kitchen says there's a definite change: "He just gets this really kind of aggressive look like you can see a change in him."
As proof, Laura allowed Thomas to eat some foods with red dye as demonstration: red licorice and fruit rollups. Before, Thomas calmly plays with his sister. After the Red Dye 40, it takes 15 minutes before he becomes nearly uncontrollable.
Dr. Wolff viewed the video of Thomas and describes this as an allergic reaction to Red Dye 40, characterized by inflammation along the nerves running through the brain. "Planning, reasoning and making decisions are all areas that seem to be influenced by areas that are sensitive to food dyes. You can see that activation even a little more here as to how it develops that hot spot in the right frontal part of the brain. It's too active and too engaged, it's hyper-excitable at this point," explains Dr. Wolff.
While Thomas's family and his psychologist believe Red Dye 40 has a direct impact on his behavior, the director of the ADHD program at Children's National Medical Center says for the vast majority of people, this is not the case.
Dr. Jay Salpekar says, " We are really talking about a minority of people who have sensitivity to food additives, gluten, etc., maybe about 5% of the population. But the vast majority of children with ADHD are not food sensitive."
The Food and Drug Administration says its scientists have found color additives to be safe. While the agency monitors reports of problems with Red Dye 40 and other food colorings... "Individual anecdotal experiences from the elimination of a particular food item may not have been performed in a scientific manner, and that many other factors may be responsible for any observed behavioral changes in children."
But Laura Kitchen says she knows what Red Dye 40 does to her son; she reads labels carefully to avoid it. And she says its becoming easier to find products without it if parents are concerned.